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Empty Bowls fundraiser fills hearts, and coffers

Organizers report success despite COVID-19 restrictions, raising over $20,000 to support Shelter House, Thunder Bay Food Bank.

THUNDER BAY – The Empty Bowls, Caring Hearts fundraiser lived up to its name this year, with participants taking bowls home without the soup dinner that normally accompanies the event – not that anyone was complaining.

Participants normally enjoy a communal meal as part of the fundraiser, but organizers opted to simplify given COVID-19 restrictions, sticking with the true core of the event: the hundreds of hand-crafted bowls made by local potters.

This year’s drive-through event, held Saturday, allowed the more than 400 people who purchased tickets to pick which bowls they’d take home from their vehicles at the Moose Hall.

While volunteers had to scramble to adapt the event, organizing committee co-chair Jay Stapleton said cancelling it wasn’t really an option, given its hefty contributions to the Shelter House and Thunder Bay Food Bank.

“Those organizations have come to rely on what we’ve been doing, so we couldn’t just say, we’re going to take a year off and try again next year,” he said.

The event typically raises about $30,000, split evenly between the two organizations.

Shelter House executive director Michelle Jordan, who was on hand to pick up bowls of her own Saturday, praised the event’s community spirit as well as its financial impact.

The funds are usually put toward the Shelter House’s food programs, which feed about 700 people daily and offer 24-hour-a-day service, Jordan said.

“This event has always been very close to my heart,” she said. “It’s just one of those really heartfelt things... I’m really glad we’ve been able to do it with COVID-19 and still have that same kind of spirit.”

That community spirit was in evidence Saturday, as dozens of volunteers bustled to serve long lineups.

Many of those volunteers came from the Thunder Bay Potters’ Guild, whose members have supported the event with their craftsmanship throughout its 21-year history.

Alan Moon, a long-time local potter, was considering the more than $400,000 raised in that time by Empty Bowls on Saturday.

“What it means to me is just amazement, it’s as simple as that,” he said.

Moon called the event a true community effort, saying around half of the funds were raised by volunteers from the Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship and elsewhere, while the potters’ work accounted for the other half.

Still, there’s no denying the sweat equity put into the initiative by Potters’ Guild members, some of whom contributed 40 to 50 bowls this year. That represented at least 40 hours of work, Moon estimated, likely spread over months.

The fruits of that labour were on display on tables outside the Moose Hall, with a wide array of unique designs.

Many members of the tight-knit local pottery community had learned from the same teachers, Moon said.

“But still, once the work gets processed through the brain, it comes out differently. It’s their own personality and subconscious that finally creates the piece.”

Saturday’s event raised over $20,000, well exceeding organizers’ pandemic-year goal of $14,000.

However, Stapleton still hoped to bump that total closer to previous years’ takings in the coming months, with smaller events leveraging partners who weren’t able to participate in the drive-through event, like local chefs.

Updates on those efforts will be found on the group’s Facebook page and website.

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